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A virtual festival celebrating the best of theatre through film

Actor Atul Kumar speaks to The Daily Guardian about the online theatre festival he is busy curating, and how artists are coping up with Covid-19.

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At a time when theatre groups are innovating to keep their practice alive and fight the gloom of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mumbai-based group, The Company Theatre, has come up with an online festival of 15 short films adapted from drama sourced from around the globe. Keeping in mind corona restrictions, all the films have been created remotely — right from auditioning to filming to post-production.

Actor, founder member of TCT and one of the festival curators, Atul Kumar, spoke to The Daily Guardian about “TheatreFilmTheatre”, an online theatre festival, and how artists are coping up with Covid-19. Excerpts:

Atul Kumar

Q. What made The Company Theatre come up with “TheatreFilmTheatre”?

A. These have been some extraordinary times and no one really envisaged that we will go through such a mess in every part of our lives professionally, economically, health wise and even psychologically. Artists all over the world are wondering what the future holds with gaping eyes and performing artist have been hit the worst. Many artists, during this lockdown with the uncertainty of the future, are under real mental duress. The Company Theatre realised the worth of having work, purpose and a creative drive that could keep the community together and people engaged in healthy activity. So we decided to ask young filmmakers to pick up theatre scripts and cast theatre actors in and make short films. We didn’t care about what kind of films were made as long as people worked with each other across cities and towns and different languages and remotely creating magic! That’s all the purpose of this project was, is.

Still from a short film

Q. With recorded plays and forms like Zoom theatre gaining popularity, why was the short film the desired format for showcasing drama?

A. We all know very well, and you have heard this again and again, that filmed versions of performed theatre in theatre spaces has failed to keep the audience’s attention. Even the best of theatre shot on 15 camera setups by the best of international and wellendowed theatre organisations kept your attention only for that bleak period. There is no doubt that theatre is a live medium and must be shared in the same time and space between audiences and actors. Since that is not available to us, and perhaps won’t be for a long time to come, we need to find ways to continue telling stories in theatrical ways within the limitations we have. The computerised world is that only possibility presently, so be it. We decided to try out various different formats — film is just one of the formats. Then there are others and we are up with many other works that are in the making.

Still from Jayesh Jain’s film adaptation of ‘Brain Surgeon’.
Still from filmmaker Priyanshi Vasani’s ‘The Unbearable Gaze’, an experimental take on Kalidasa’s Shakuntala.

Q. Producing a short film can be labour-intensive, and surely it could not have been any easier with everybody at home under lockdown. How did the performers, directors and technicians manage to put the films together?

A. Human endeavour can be most surprising, as we all know. And the best of us (and obviously, also the worst of us) comes out when we are conflicted. The artists worked remotely with others across towns and cities, relying only on the Internet and their passion for the arts. Some, of course, were in the same spaces and took all Covid precautions and created films somehow, against all odds like the lack of equipment, resources and absolutely no money at all.

Q. How was the process of curating these short films for an online festival?

A. Joyous. Especially because it was during these tough times. The first few weeks into the lockdown, it had felt like an abyss. Like the rabbit’s hole, really! And then one found a purpose and some friends who were in the same boat. We joined hands, and meetings on Zoom, late-night phone calls, jokes and stories kept our spirits high. We even placed bets about how many actors and filmmakers will finally join us! It was all done in a fun and cheerful way and although I am sure all of us in the curatorial team are inclined differently aesthetically, we aligned in some strange way, driven by something larger. That is very reassuring.

The artists involved were mostly first-time filmmakers or working on their second or third experiments. And these were precisely the artists we wanted to hold hands with — not the established ones, since we knew they will find their way anyway. The others needed that doorway which we jointly created.

Q. With artists and theatre companies worldwide complaining about their incomes being hit during the pandemic, what made the performers decide to work pro bono and the TCT to put up the films on YouTube for free viewing?

 A. We are going to do a hat collection. Donate what you can and will to support the films, filmmakers, artists involved and the general idea of supporting the arts being an ‘essential’ commodity in our lives. Theatre has already struggled a lot with paid viewing online, let alone with complaints about ticket prices for live shows. In these extraordinary times when everyone is squeezed a bit, we thought it would be too much if we charged tickets for this festival. Let’s just get the wheel rolling, then we can slowly go back to normal ticketing. Although we are creating other projects, and our next theatre production “parables of sinister misdeeds committed in this house” will be played online and be ticketed. We are just testing waters now, like everyone else. Of course, we all have to make a living, so things will change, if they will change. Right now, I am just happy and grateful that we could reach here while so many others couldn’t.

‘TheatreFilmTheatre’ will premiere on The Company Theatre’s YouTube channel on 30 August 2020. More information can be found on their website and Facebook page.

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